By Elle Tee
On my 28th birthday, I drank a margarita the size of my head and then sat sick in the parking lot because I couldn’t stand the sight of my burrito. I don’t like birthdays. Well, not birthdays in general really; just mine.
Twenty-eight is not a milestone year. No new, fun, previously forbidden legal gates have opened to me. But it’s five years of living in D.C. Five years of the grind, the fun, the mundane, and the crazy.
In five years, I have had three psychotic breakdowns. The first primarily depressive. The second mostly numb. And the third and most recent, anxious. Writer Andrew Solomon has described anxiety as the feeling when you trip, and you’re mid-air, with the sidewalk coming impossibly fast toward your teeth. Except it’s this feeling in suspension. Over and over and over. For moments or weeks or months. Waking up becomes gasping for air at the thick surface of a dark molasses pool. Tripping at 11 pm and then again at 2:01 am, and 4:05 am, and 7 am, until you give up sleeping. And yet the sidewalk still comes and comes and comes. Numb from medication and frayed nerves with singed edges, I stayed catatonic on my couch for two weeks. And then I quit my job. Again.
This summer, I ate a two-and-a-half-pound bag of licorice and binge-watched all six wonderfully terrible seasons of Sex and the City. I got lucky and landed a good, low-stress job, and experienced a breathtaking trip to Europe with my beautiful spouse. I quit all my medication cold turkey and stopped drinking too much. My mind began to quiet for the first time in a long time. I rolled through the motions and did as little as was required of me.
Yet deep in my gut, I continue to carry an incredible amount of shame. I have failed repeatedly to start and keep up with a job in a particular field. Many of my college classmates have radically outpaced me. I often burden my friends, no matter how kind and supportive they are, with my obsessive need for reassurance. I am both too much and not enough. I know this.
Poet Nayyirah Waheed suggests a kinder pathway to success:
you do not have to be a fire
every mountain blocking you.
you could be a water
soft river your way to freedom
What I have learned in these five years is this: I can neither obey the whispers of my mental illness nor ignore them. I cannot plunge forward with my ambitions unchecked, charge through the mountain, and pretend it won’t break me. I also cannot ignore the desire for more in my life—some of the hope of that confident, wishful 23-year-old who moved here—and only work the nine-to-five, watch Netflix, go to happy hours, and expect nothing more of myself.
Growth is possible for me, and it starts at the place of gratitude and self-forgiveness. Maybe not at the pace I want. Or a culture of burnout wants. But at the pace I need. Of a soft river. Carefully navigating the banks and bends, until I reach the other side of the mountain.
Elle Tee is a bi+ plant mom living with an anxiety disorder in the Washington, D.C., area.